The jingoist euphoria that followed a successful one-sided war may not last as long as the Republicans now assume. John Major, for example, having bowed to the need to dismantle Maggie Thatcher’s poll tax, is painfully discovering that the British people cannot be blinded forever by sand from the desert.
And yet the political landscape does look different after the storm. To be more accurate, some of the changes are indeed new, while others have merely been brought more sharply into focus. Observing the conflict from Paris, its most striking–and most shocking–feature was the sordid silence of the intellectuals about the crimes committed in our name. The treason of the French clerics reached such unprecedented proportions that it raises the issue of whether, in the tenth year of his reign, François Mitterrand may not be in the process of completing his unexpected task, as a nominal socialist, of "normalizing" France by bringing it fully into the U.S. orbit. It raises a broader question, too: whether the inevitable and necessary collapse of the post-Stalinist system must now be followed–and for how long?–by the domination of the American ideology. These are some of the issues that I will touch upon in the notes that follow.
The Time of the Murderers
"Voici le temps des Assassins." Thus Arthur Rimbaud, who broke his pen at the age of 20, having revolutionized French poetry. Rimbaud died in 1891 and, although his centennial does not match the Mozart celebrations–since poetry books do not sell like CDs–it is still quite an occasion here. His famous forecast came to mind during the forty days in which the coalition forces bombed a country back to the Middle Ages, killing an incalculable number of soldiers and civilians. Uncalculated may be a better word than incalculable, since no effort has been made–quite the contrary–to tell us how many Iraqis were massacred, possibly 100,000 or more, in that short lapse of time. The objection will be raised that Iraqis grew used to slaughter under Saddam Hussein; more than a million died, after all, on both sides in the protracted war with Iran. Some of those dead, it should be remembered, were exterminated with our weapons; but this new massacre is entirely our handiwork.
The facts and figures are kept secret for reasons that are not hard to find. They would destroy the image of a clean, clinical conflict, bloody the legend of a just war and disturb the clever talk about the resulting peace in the Middle East. Only once, on the penultimate day of the war, were we shown the burned carcasses of cars and personal belongings, scattered as the fleeing Iraqis were bombed and strafed in a "turkey shoot" [see Christopher Hitchens, "Minority Report," March 25]. It was imperative, however, to stop this impression of a massacre from spreading: Since most people are shocked by the concrete image of death, it would have spoiled the great jingoist celebration. Rimbaud, incidentally, had words for this, too: "Ma patrie se lève, j’aime mieux la voir assise"–roughly translated as "My country stands tall, I prefer it seated."
Naturally, some of the intelligentsia did express their indignation at the war, but throughout Europe they were never more than a tiny minority. Where were the Picassos painting their Guernicas, the intellectuals joining Bertrand Russell on his international tribunal, the petitioners rallying around a latter-day Sartre? The ambiguity of the case and the revulsion at Saddam Hussein’s regime are not sufficient explanation, since people were not obliged to take sides in this conflict–there was no side worthy of support–but were simply asked to prevent and, if that was impossible, to condemn a coldblooded massacre. In France in particular, with its tradition of protest, this relative silence says a great deal about the new, reduced role of dissenting intellectuals.
Lilliputians on Sartre’s Grave
Bernard-Henri Lévy, "BHL" to his fans, is one of those commercial travelers who, some fifteen years ago, peddled reactionary wares in pink wrappings and were known as nouveaux philosophes. In the context of an economic crisis that was generating mass unemployment, and with the memory of the 1968 revolt still fresh, their social function was to remind the younger generation–their own, that is–that while individual rebellion might be just, any attempt to bring about the radical transformation of society was suicidal. With the help of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and an intense media campaign, they were quite successful.
Once their duty was discharged, they were not dismissed, for it was understood they might still prove useful. BHL has an influential position in publishing. No longer quite as youthful but still handsome in his studiedly casual way, he is also a media personality (and better, incidentally, to look at than to listen to). He has recently been given the opportunity to present four one-hour programs on the larger of the two French public television channels. This series, along with a 500-page companion book, both modestly titled The Adventures of Freedom, gives his "subjective" history of French intellectuals from the Dreyfus case, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, to the present.
It is a very personal version. Leaving aside the Jewish question, to which he devotes considerable time, its main purpose is to show how French intellectuals succumbed to the two great diseases of Nazism and Communism–which Lévy consciously equates. The author performs this feat without once mentioning the Great Depression or mass unemployment. The repulsive side of capitalism is ignored; a dissident’s rejection of French society is explained as the result of some guilty passion for purity or for youth. The dissidents are portrayed as strange plants growing, without any social soil, in midair. But then it was never the originality of their ideas that made the nouveaux philosophes relevant, since they had none. They were interesting as a fad, a symptom, as a conveyor belt for the ideas that the establishment needed to spread.
Today, the points they made matter more than the flimsy arguments used to back them. Lévy argues that André Malraux (especially after his return to the fold as Charles de Gaulle’s Culture Minister), Albert Camus (particularly after his break with Sartre) and Raymond Aron, the academic editorialist, were right, while the Surrealists and the existentialist followers of Sartre and Frantz Fanon were wrong. This was not because they were stooges of Moscow; that charge, which might have been applied to C.P. members, just could not be made to stick in their case. They were guilty, in Lévy’s view, because they did not share his pessimistic "philosophy"; because they assumed that history had meaning and that the world could be altered fundamentally. They were dangerous because their conception of commitment went beyond the defense of an undefined "liberal democracy" and because their idea of social justice went beyond the fashionable charity business. But thank God, says Lévy, that madness is behind us.
What the nouveaux philosophes achieved at the local level in the 1970s, BHL goes on, was expanded to a global scale by the upheaval in Eastern Europe ten years later. Even Solzhenitsyn is no longer needed. The collapse of "communism" spelled the end of all belief in radical change–though naturally we must remain vigilant: The spirit, not just the flesh, is always weak.
With his shrewd commercial sense of timing, BHL might have added a final chapter. The Persian Gulf war, however, came too late, and it is left to his fellow travelers to elaborate the point in current articles. The mission may have been accomplished internationally, they maintain, but in France it remains unfinished. To complete the normalization of his country Mitterrand must still drive the French, and above all French Socialists, to accept the United States as a model.
The new philosophers did contribute to the ideological swing to the right in France, and historians may well see Sartre’s funeral in 1980 as the symbolic end of the age of commitment among intellectuals. On the popular level, however, the transformation came later and required the bankruptcy of the left in office to be effective. Ten years ago France was still the odd country out in Europe; its people still vaguely believed that not only society but their own lives could be altered by radical political action. That is why the Western chanceries were so alarmed when Mitterrand was elected President in May 1981. But the left came and, instead of conquering, surrendered.
Mitterrand did not originally conceive of his role as the destroyer of dreams. He saw himself as a reformer somewhat to the left of Swedish social democracy. It was only two years later, finding himself in a cul-de-sac, that he discovered his new vocation as France’s great "normalizer." He has since been hailed by his panegyrists as the man who fit France into the Western mold of consensus politics, proving that here, too, left and right could succeed each other in office.
There is an alternative interpretation of Mitterrand’s performance. He has achieved his aim by wrecking popular belief in radical change, by proving to the establishment that the left in office presents no danger, that the Socialists are merely reformist managers of the capitalist system. He is now being urged to crown his achievement by persuading the French left to accept capitalism as the only world system and Washington as its headquarters. Those who oppose this hegemony of the United States, like Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who resigned as Defense Minister during the gulf crisis, are now branded in the highly consensual press as guilty of "crude anti-Americanism."
Such terms are meaningless until they are spelled out. A protester in Paris must state in the name of what he or she opposes the United States: the national heritage, a common European culture, a different social order? Back in the 1950s the gap between Europe and the United States seemed obvious, but the deep social transformation of Western Europe since then has narrowed the gap. A number of shifts, including the disappearance of the peasantry, the high degree of industrial and financial concentration, the strengthening of the private sector at the expense of the public sector, mean that whatever difference may remain, it is only quantitative and not qualitative. That is one reason European critics must now say not only why they oppose the "American way" but also what other road they are suggesting.
The second crucial change, naturally, is the collapse of the other bloc. When the Bolsheviks seized power it was not the United States they opposed but capitalism in general. By the end of World War II, Europe–and in a real sense the world–was split into two systems in conflict. For some years now, however, few people in the West, even among Communists, have really believed that the Soviet Union offered a socialist alternative. The Western left thus had to seek its own solutions, hostile both to neo-Stalinism and U.S. imperialism. Now it abruptly finds itself with only one opponent. In Warsaw, in Prague, even in Moscow if you listen carefully, it is the capitalist credo that is now being recited. For socialists in the West this has the benefit of spelling the end of guilt by association. But it also means that unless they wish to abdicate altogether, they cannot long delay the elaboration of their own proposals.
In facing Bush’s new world order, purely nationalist opposition is no longer sufficient. When someone like Regis Debray–former companion of Che Guevara, former assistant to President Mitterrand, and now a convert to Gaullism–expresses his hostility to U.S. domination, one finds his attitude welcome but at the same time anachronistic, because it is not backed by a serious alternative. It is no longer possible to criticize, say, the form that mass culture takes in the United States, or the urban ghettos that are produced by social inequality, without specifying how we propose to deal with the problems, since they already exist in our own societies. And after what has happened in the East, it is unthinkable to propose abstract answers about collective ownership; instead, we must invent concrete forms of democracy at all levels that would insure that power flows from below and that the "associate producers" are really masters of their destiny in their workplaces and in society at large.
By definition, such a tremendous search stretches across frontiers, and the solution will not ultimately be found without the backing of the bulk of the American people. Hence, to describe such a quest as "anti-American" means identifying America with George Bush and assuming that the United States is doomed, by some curse, never to change its form of government or economic system. A bizarre fate for a country born out of revolution.
This is an old struggle, fought in a new context. How much this context has changed since Stalin’s death was brought home recently here in Paris by the strange case of comrade Boudarel.
In 1950 Georges Boudarel was a 24-year-old philosophy teacher at the French lycée in Saigon. He was also a Communist Party member who went beyond the party line. Shocked by the oppression and cruelty of a colonial war, he decided to go over to the other side and join the Vietminh. As such, he soon found himself in the awkward position of being deputy head of a camp for French prisoners. This put him in charge of, among other things, the "re-education" of the camp’s half-starved inmates (a point that worries some members of his defense committee, of which more in a moment). When the war was over, he lost many of his illusions and, after a stay in Prague, returned to France in 1967, once the government had granted a general amnesty for crimes connected with the war. No longer a communist–with either a small or a capital "c"–he made a successful academic career as an expert on Indochina and now teaches at the University of Paris. It was in this capacity that he attended a conference here in Paris in February, where he was identified by some former inmates of his camp. The discovery may not have been entirely accidental, given the campaign that was immediately unleashed.
In the French press, on radio and on TV, Boudarel is being presented as a traitor and torturer. Legally, he has nothing to fear. His university refuses to dismiss him. His actions in Vietnam are covered by the 1966 amnesty. And the right-wingers who threaten to sue him for "crimes against humanity"–which were excluded from the amnesty–have been warned by Boudarel’s defense committee that they would do so at their peril. Documents recalling French torture and executions of Vietnamese prisoners are readily available, as are sordid stories about France’s behavior in Algeria. Let the right open Pandora’s box.
But the important issue 1s not the legal one. More important is what this episode is symptomatic of in political terms. The belated "discovery" that Russia was not a "workers’ paradise" and the dramatic collapse of the Soviet bloc are being used to whitewash the colonial past, to describe torturers as patriots and those who dared to oppose their country’s crimes as traitors–in short, to rewrite history.
I was reminded of this when we dined with friends the other night. My wife and I were the only people at the table never to have carried a Communist Party card (ex-C.P. members are still France’s biggest party), and we were struck by how much our companions were on the defensive against this attack from the right. It was left to me, the eternal heretic, to tell these former believers that BHL was belittling their story, that it was part of the great tragedy of our century, a still-unfinished drama, whatever the fashionable scribblers may publish now.
How changeful is the spirit of the times! Once our dinner companions or their elders had been convinced that history was on Stalin’s side. Today our propagandists proclaim with the same conviction that capitalism will reign from here to eternity. Intoxicated by its current success, they think they can foretell the future at a time when, as a wise Eastern European put it, "we do not yet know what our past is going to be."